Christina Gomez, J.
This article examines the principles of statutory construction and highlights key interpretive doctrines applicable in Colorado's federal and state courts.
1814, a divided U.S. Supreme Court decided an
"elaborately argued" case requiring construction of
a federal trade statute-specifically, whether Congress
intended that all articles imported into the country in
violation of the statute must be forfeited, even if a third
party had purchased them for consideration and without
more than 200 years later, parties still elaborately argue
and courts still disagree on issues of statutory
construction, although the canons of interpretation have
developed and extrinsic aids (like legislative history) have
become more readily available. Colorado's appellate
courts decide hundreds of cases involving statutory
interpretation every year.
canons of statutory construction may assist in resolving
these issues. The General Assembly has enacted a general law
providing instruction for the interpretation of Colorado
commentators have argued that the statutory construction
canons are contradictory and can be used to support equally
plausible alternative interpretations. Even Justice Scalia
and Bryan Garner, in their oft-cited text on legal
interpretation, note that "[n]o canon of interpretation
is absolute. Each may be overcome by the strength of
differing principles that point in other
This article provides a brief overview of the key interpretive doctrines applicable in Colorado's federal and state courts.
As indicated above, the starting point for statutory interpretation is the plain meaning of the statutory text. Courts apply a wide range of interpretive rules in determining what the plain language means. Some of the more commonly applied rules include:
• Words should be given their ordinary, common meaning
at the time the legislation was enacted, unless the
legislature provided a specific meaning, such as through
defined terms in the statute.
• Dictionary definitions may help to elucidate a
term's common meaning, and if the statutory text is
dated, dictionaries in place at the time of adoption may be
• Words should be considered in context-both how the
words are phrased (including grammar, syntax, and
punctuation) and how they fit within the framework of the
statute as a whole.
• Each word and provision should be given meaning, so as
not to render any parts of the statute superfluous or
• Terms should be given a consistent meaning throughout
• When the legislature uses different terms or
provisions in different sections of a statute, it probably
intends different results.
Courts also apply various interpretive canons in analyzing statutory language. Many of these canons are derived from Latin maxims and are still referred to by their Latin labels. Sometimes courts will not apply these canons unless they find the text ambiguous, but other times they will apply these canons in ascertaining the plain, unambiguous meaning of the text.
Practitioners should note that different canons may apply in different circumstances; applying multiple canons may lead to contradictory results even within the same case; and courts may decline to apply a canon, for example, if doing so would lead to an interpretation that conflicts with the legislature's obvious intent.
Canons used on a relatively frequent basis include:
• The text should be construed to further, not to obstruct, a statute's stated purposes or policies-which often appear in an initial section of the statute.
• Statutory titles and headings may indicate
• "And" is usually conjunctive, while
"or" is usually disjunctive.
• "Include" or "including" generally signifies a non-exclusive list of examples.
• "Must" and "shall" usually connote mandatory actions, whereas "may" or "should" usually connote discretion.
• The singular includes the plural, and vice versa, absent an indication of contrary legislative intent.
• The masculine includes the feminine, and vice
• The present tense includes the future tense.
• "Person" includes corporate
• Associated words bear on each other's meaning
(noscitur a sociis)
• An adjective or adverb preceding or following a series
of nouns, verbs, or phrases generally modifies each of them
• Under federal (but not Colorado) law, qualifying words
or phrases are presumed to refer solely to the nearest
antecedent, absent indication of a contrary intent (last
• General words that follow an enumerated list of
specific items are presumed to encompass only items of a
similar kind (ejusdem generis).
• The expression of one thing indicates the exclusion of another (expressio unius est exclusio alterius).
• If two provisions cannot be interpreted harmoniously,
and absent indication of a contrary legislative intent, a
specific provision controls over, and creates an exception
to, a conflicting general provision (generalia
specialibus non derogant).
• When the legislature reenacts a statute without making
any material changes, it is presumed to have approved of
earlier administrative or judicial interpretations of that
statute (reenactment canon).
• Conversely, when the legislature significantly amends
the statutory language, it is presumed to have intended a
change in meaning.
Deference and Scale-Tipping
Courts considering the meaning or application of ambiguous statutory text may apply certain starting assumptions. For example: